published on February 29, 2016 - 12:36 AM
Written by The Business Journal Staff
A new report examining the impact of large-scale solar projects on prime ag land says Central Valley planners need to do a better job of balancing clean energy development and agricultural production.

The report, titled “Large-scale Solar and Agricultural Land: Balancing Clean Energy and Food Production in the San Joaquin Valley,” notes that the Valley is already home to more than 120 large-scale solar facilities, some as big as 6,100 acres.

The white paper, which recommends that local governments play a much more active role in helping map future solar energy installations in areas long dominated by agricultural, was produced by the Worldwatch Institute’s Sustainable Energy Roadmap Project, a six-member group that includes the San Joaquin Valley Regional Policy Council and the Madera County Transportation Commission.

Worldwatch is a Washington, D.C.-based independent research institute founded in 1974. George Burmeister and Eric Sikkema of the Colorado Energy Group, another member of the Roadmap Project, penned the solar report.

“The energy industry landscape [around the Central Valley] has quite literally changed almost overnight and harmonizing land use planning objectives with new clean energy projects has become more complex for local government planners,” the authors write.

“Thanks mostly to a 73-percent decline in the cost of providing electricity from solar since 2008” and “a push by state policymakers to increase the amount of electricity produced by renewable energy resources through the state Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), solar developers are rushing to propose large-scale installations on cherished California farmland.”

According to the study’s authors, major economic factors shaping large-scale solar development in the Central Valley include population growth, urban sprawl, air quality, the drought and high-speed rail.

Valley farmers already impacted by a long-term drought are looking for additional revenue sources to help them hang on to family farms, the report notes. “This phenomenon has spurred the need for educated policymakers to both protect prized farmland and help deliver clean electricity.”

Among their conclusions, Burmeister and Sikkema recommend that local governments add large-scale solar language to their existing general plans and other key planning documents.

They also recommend cities and counties identify potential large tracts of municipal land such as airports, landfills, wastewater treatment plants, fairgrounds and brownfields that are suitable for large-scale solar and “develop these first through individual projects.”

“Developing non-prime farmland first is an obvious yet sometimes overlooked strategy,” the authors add, while also encouraging local governments to “assess fees on private land developed for large-scale solar projects and dedicate this funding stream to agricultural land conservation and community education.”

Randall Winston, executive director of California’s Strategic Growth Council, praised the WorldWatch report, calling it “a valued resource.”

“Local California governments need assistance as they deal with the difficult interplay between agricultural and energy,” Winston said.
Fresno-based Barrier Solar has built a dozen large-scale solar projects for area ag operators. Those projects have ranged from 100 kilowatts to 1.5 megawatts — for clients growing everything from almonds to zucchini.

Barrier, which is locally owned, has been in the roofing business for 17 years and began doing residential, commercial and agricultural solar installations seven years ago.

The company, whose solar operations are vertically integrated, has recently completed large-scale solar projects for Thomason Farming and Westside Harvesting as well as non-ag operators like Valley Wide Beverage and California Industrial Rubber.

“Thomason Farming was spending $900,000 a year on diesel” before converting to solar, said Blair Cunnings, Barrier’s CEO.

Cunnings credited California’s wine makers “with really spurring the drive toward adoption of large-scale solar” as a means to power Golden State farming operations.

“The wine industry started it by wanting to go green. Now the nut guys want to go green too,” Cunnings said.

Andy Zovorek, vice president of Barrier Solar, said his clients “are hearing more and more from their customers that if you’re not green and you don’t show some sort of carbon reduction, we’re not going to do business with you anymore.”

With ongoing innovations in solar technology, Cunnings said today’s big solar installations are actually more compact and made up of what he referred to as “plug-and-play” components that are easily and quickly replaced.

“The last thing farmers and business owners need is to be off line for an extended period” while their systems undergo repair, Cunnings said.

“With the systems we install, if there’s an issue, we’re there right away and can often get a replacement part ordered, delivered and installed the next day.”

With Congress extending the solar Investment Tax Credit late last year that provides a 30-percent tax rebate to individuals and businesses that go solar, interest in solar energy has never been greater. During the past year, companies like Visalia-based CalCom Solar have installed large-scale solar installations at a number of Valley dairies.

“CalCom is making solar energy work for us — both operationally and financially,” said Brian Medeiros, owner of Medeiros and Son Dairy in Hanford, who projects his $2 million investment in a large-scale solar system will save his company more than $8 million in utility costs over the next 25 years.

“For farmers, watering crops and running pumps gobbles up energy,” Zavorek said. “Energy rates have been going up 5 percent annually for 25 years. With solar, farm operations can shave demand charges and level out the cost of energy.”

With the California Public Utilities Commission’s recent approval of aggregate and net metering, Zavorek said farmers will continue to benefit from going solar since net metering “allows them to create a single solar system on their land and cascade energy to a myriad of meters across their property. We can install a solar energy system on one parcel of ag land and offset meters miles away,” Zavorek added.

With net metering, a customer’s electric meter keeps track of how much electricity is consumed and how much excess electricity is generated by the solar system and sent back into the electric utility grid — with the customer only paying for the net amount of electricity used from the utility over and above the amount of electricity generated by their solar system.

Most of the farmers contacting Barrier with inquiries about solar “have a pretty big energy demand,” Zavorek said.

Still, deciding whether or not to take lucrative ag land out of production can be a tough call for most ag operators, he added. “We’ve gone mostly into the least-productive areas of ag land to do our installations,” Zavorek said.

Cunnings said Barrier’s strong local ties are important to Valley growers. ““Farmers are nervous people by nature, especially with the drought,” he said. “They want to know that the company that is installing solar on their farms will still be there in 20 years.

“Our focus is providing a top-quality product in the beginning and following up with high-quality operations and maintenance,” Cunnings added.

“We don’t spend a lot on advertising but the results and savings our customers are getting from going solar is producing great word-of-mouth for us.”

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